In which I promotionally advertise for the deceased: George Szell, King of Dvorak 8

September 24. It’s coming.

No one who is currently a living and working musician is going to make any money off of the release of the above CD from the kindly German folks at Audite who brought us that sweet Kubelik Mahler cycle among many other things. If this were a pop record I could groan endlessly about how it’s just fatcats in suits who are manipulating our preferences all the way to the bank and blah blah blah, but since this is a classical release I’ll just say that I hope it makes some money for someone somewhere. It’s released in the States on September 24, but it randomly showed up on my Spotify under the guise of something like “You listened to Mozart Symphony no. 39, II. Andante con moto…what about this shit that’s actually unrelated in almost every conceivable way except the part about them both being symphonies?” What the hell? It was worth a listen.

George Szell has an interesting reputation nowadays, one that isn’t entirely consistent with what his output probably suggests. There’s a whole bunch of old Szell/Cleveland recordings on those Sony “Essential Classics” that seemed to be split evenly between them and Ormandy/Philly. It’s not especially flattering company – I find the overwhelming majority of Ormandy’s work to be overwhelmingly boring – and it gives one the sense that one shouldn’t ever pay more than $7 for a Szell recording. But scattered throughout those classics which are essential are some really fine recordings from Szell and Co., including a quite lovely Brahms cycle and a pretty fucking energetic Mahler 6 that I never expected to be worth a damn.

Szell is someone I’ve found myself encountering more and more lately. He’s sort of the alpha version of Otmar Suitner, my personal favorite maestro. There’s not a hell of a lot of frills in the music-making, and the execution can occasionally cross the line from ruthless to soulless, but I’ll be damned if you’re not going to get a pretty reasonable take on what it was the composer had in mind, especially when it comes to balances and structures. The shit that they get “right” musically isn’t necessarily flashy, but they make for successful performances and frankly they’re refreshing to hear in the occasional sea of self-indulgence that is conducting a great orchestra.

This, of course, is why it’s such a treat when they encounter a piece that has all the drama and action built right in like Dvorak 8. No magical intervention is necessary to make the 8th into the unicorn-powered plane crashing into the sun that exists in the ink. What makes a killer performance of the 8th is nailing the shit mentioned in the previous paragraph: balances, especially in the winds, and coherence in the structure and pacing. Both Suitner and Szell are the ideal candidates for this approach, and their studio recordings are among the best out there. Suitner’s in particular has a really special energy and some truly astounding bits that would make even the staunchest “it doesn’t have words, it’s so boring” dumbass take note.

Suitner’s recording has long been a favorite in general, and certainly of the work in particular. I thought it would be a cold day in hell before I found a performance that exciting. And then I went to work on Tuesday.

I listened to the soon-to-be-released Szell/Czech PO performance three times in a row. I laughed audibly on more than one occasion to the point that a co-worker asked me what was going on. I got literally nothing done the first time through the finale. Listening while working isn’t quite “right” though, so I reserved some time to listen to it when I had nothing else going on later that night (and believe me, I had nothing going on). It was even better. I’m sure that there’s something special about Czech dudes playing the music of a Czech dude, but whatever it is it’s awesome. There’s enough excitement and edge-of-your-seat thrills to outshine a gangbang in the middle of a power plant explosion, and there’s a 40% chance that the coda of the finale will make you involuntarily give your phone or stereo a standing ovation in a public place if you dare take it there.

I was going to start a series of posts here soon about “definitive” recordings: releases that stand so clearly above the rest of the output for that work that there’s really no question as to what the go-to performance is. I had every intention of starting this series with the Reiner/Chicago Symphony Mysterious Mountain. I still may, but I just may retroactively make this the first post in the series, too. There’s really no good reason why a) you shouldn’t own this and b) you’ll have any need for any other recording of Dvorak 8 ever again (except for Suitner of course!).

If you have Spotify, go find it. If you still buy CDs, mark your calendars for September 24. There’s a good chance the Brahms 1 that it’s paired with is also awesome. I wouldn’t know. I can’t get past the Dvorak.

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4 thoughts on “In which I promotionally advertise for the deceased: George Szell, King of Dvorak 8

  1. Great post! I grew up in post-Szell Cleveland, where Von Dohnanyi would complain that “if the orchestra had a good night, Szell (long dead) would get the credit. Szell is “graduate school” for newbies to classical. Once you get over the sugary Karajan, you can move up to a master who respected the composer’s intent. My personal favorite Szell/CO recording is of the Prokofiev 1st symphony, released by the CO as part of a “75th Anniversary” edition. Try to find it. Szell’s tempo in the 4th is the fastest you will ever encounter. In that speed, Szell loses nothing by way of intonation. Flutes come off like machine gun staccato. Makes me laugh for joy every time. Excellent review of an overshadowed maestro.

  2. @dingashenry:
    Didn’t Sibelius consider Karajan unique in his ability to understand and respect the composer’s intent?

  3. Sibelius indeed say that, but only in reference to himself. I wouldn’t describe Karajan as a stickler for the score as a matter of principle. Perhaps in Sibelius this is the case, though. I’m not partial to his readings myself, but I should give them another listen. Are you partial to the Karajan recordings?

    Thanks for stopping in!

  4. One other note: I finally took the accompanying Brahms 1 for a spin or two. It’s good but not great. Doesn’t matter. The Dvorak alone is worth the price of admission.

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